Sabbatical report – David Allen
March 31, 2012
Appreciations: I want to begin with appreciations. First, to The United Church of
Canada for instituting a sabbatic leave policy and to Toronto Conference for providing
the financial resources to make it happen. Second, to the staff who inevitably ended up
covering more of my work than I intended, especially Linda Gray and Rose Cambourne.
And thanks to Peter Wyatt who was willing to fill in for four months and who, as I’ve
heard, has done so admirably. And finally appreciation goes to all the Ministry
Personnel, staff and volunteers who gave generously of their time as I visited and asked
My sabbatical covered a number of areas, which I will describe briefly in the first two
pages, with somewhat more extended comments in the pages that follow.
Multi-media use in worship
The last time I was in the pastorate, the internet or e-mail didn’t exist, and a multi-media
service might have included an overhead projector if you were lucky. I wanted to see
how congregations and worship leaders use media as an aid to the worship life of the
church. In January I spent time at Humber Valley United Church, where they’ve been
using technology for about a year and a half. February was at North Bramalea United,
the real veterans of multi-media with a decade of experience. And March was at
Fairlawn Avenue United, where equipment was installed last fall.
I met with Ministry Personnel, staff, volunteers and congregants to discuss their
perceptions of multi-media use in worship. I learned about some of the resources they
use, policies and practices they’ve adopted, and experienced the good and the glitches of
using technology in worship. This provided some fodder for a discussion with Bill
Kervin, associate professor of public worship at Emmanuel College.
I downloaded a trial version of Media Shout, the software program that has been
purchased by Toronto Conference, and was pleased that I was able to navigate my way
around it in a short period of time. A Media Shout webinar was also helpful.
With more than half of Ministry Personnel eligible to retire within the next 10 years
(myself included), I wanted to look at leadership development from a number of
perspectives. Where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going is
perhaps too simplistic a way of putting it, but it’s not an unreasonable summary of what I
did during the sabbatical.
I did a lot of reading, but the highlight was meeting with approximately 75 of our
Ministry Personnel at the end of January and early February for what I called “A Mid-
Winter Conversation about Ministry”. We discussed why we got into ministry in the first
place and how it has changed over the years. We also looked ahead to the kind of
ministry that might emerge in the next 10 to 40 years. These conversations were not
definitive, but were more suggestive of where the church and the Conference/Presbyteries
may go in the future.
Subsequent to the meetings with Ministry Personnel, I met twice with the personnel
ministers to hear their reactions to the events and to get their sense of where we might go
with the information we gleaned.
In early January I met with Harry Brown to learn a bit about how the Toronto District
School Board develops leaders, and with Glenn Smith to hear about the efforts of the
Centre for Church Leadership Development. In March I spent time with Keith Howard
and Debra Bowman from British Columbia Conference who are similarly working on
I have been a late adopter in the area of social media, but the sabbatical gave me a chance
to become more familiar with Facebook and Twitter. My primary focus was to see how
social media can be useful for mission and ministry. From the non-church world I got
glimpses of how social media can be a way of connecting, and inside the church I was
impressed by the caring and sharing of pastoral concerns and trivia. E.g. it was
fascinating to see ministers reporting on annual meetings of congregations; normally a
source of some dread, the meetings seemed to go well, and I saw how those good
experiences buoyed the Ministry Personnel in those congregations. And I was amazed by
the number of resources that are now available through Facebook and Twitter for on-line
and worship use.
Rejuvenation of body and soul
A “typical” day involved spiritual reading/theological reflection/prayer, sabbatical-related
reading and/or meeting with people, and personal reading. Sundays involved being at
one of the sabbatical-related churches and reflecting on what I had experienced there, or
attending my home congregation. I was able to get to the gym most days; I am physically
stronger, my blood pressure is down, and my knees are noticeably weaker!
In January I attended a four-day meeting of the Conference executive secretaries/speaker
and General Council leaders, and had occasional though rare contact with the staff. I
learned a few software tools, and did some reading on organizational matters that may be
useful for the Conference staff. In late April I will meet with Peter Wyatt to prepare my
transition back into the role of executive secretary.
I’ve said to many people that this was the most satisfying sabbatical I have had. There
was enough structure to give shape to my days, and enough space to allow refreshment
for my spirit and body. There was enough time to interact with others, and plenty of time
for solitary reading and reflection. What enabled the productivity of this time was the
freedom from the daily tasks of being executive secretary. I was surprised by the number
of people who said how relaxed I looked. We’ll see how long that lasts! But it’s a
comment that I am taking seriously as I think about the role of executive secretary.
I’m hopeful that the learning from this time will be deepened by further conversation
with others in the months to come.
Once again, I offer my gratitude for everyone who helped to make this time possible.
Multi-media use in worship
I felt a bit like a “mystery shopper” at the three churches I attended. It was useful to see
the varying ways in which they are using technology (both hardware and software) and
creativity in worship. Like everything else in worship, so much of it is personal. We
react to those leading, the tone of their voice, the point they are making; and the same is
true of visual images, i.e. we react individually with our own likes and dislikes. From
that perspective, I found that some pieces worked well, and other pieces not so well. It
was good to meet with the Ministry Personnel, staff and volunteers to get their
perspectives on the technology and the impact on worship.
Some of my observations (bearing in mind the comments in the previous paragraph, i.e.
what I liked/didn’t like would be totally different for another observer/participant):
We’re clearly in a time of transition regarding technology; e.g. the two
congregations most recently using technology made extensive use of fully-printed
bulletins, while North Bramalea essentially has a flyer with congregational
activities, a brief order of worship, and no hymn books in the chairs (no pews).
A dedicated team of tech volunteers is needed to run the equipment with
specialists on sound, projection, and camera. Building a team also means
ensuring that training is adequate to build confidence, and that instructions are
A team is required for the “creative” side of worship to ensure that the service
“flows”. I observed teams that included some or all of the following: Ministry
Personnel, office staff, musicians, stage manager, technicians. In some cases the
Ministry Personnel search for the images to be used; in other cases it was a team
effort, or was assigned to one person who would then present possibilities of what
might be used. For a person not regularly leading worship, I was challenged in a
good way by imagining what collaborative worship preparation can entail.
There needs to be good communication between the tech team and the creative
team. In all three congregations, I saw a genuine overall team effort – ministers
moving easily back and forth where there was more than one worship leader; the
music leaders seemed to be part of the team; from my conversations with the tech
people, it was obvious that they too felt themselves to be part of the worship team.
Intentional discussion is key.
The worship leader needs to be ready for glitches when the technology doesn’t
work on cue, and has to be extremely nimble when there’s a problem, e.g. when
something goes awry during the sermon when an image conveyed part of the
In a couple of cases, I realized that the image being projected seemed to diminish
the presider, both in size and in centrality. Think about watching the Blue Jays at
the Rogers Centre; sometimes you have to force yourself to watch the players on
the field instead of focussing on the Jumbotron.
It was unclear to me what role the traditional worship committee would have in
this aspect of worship. Does everything fall to the minister – including praise and
blame? Or does the committee set overall guidelines or policies on things like
colours to be used, font sizes, whether hymns fade from one verse to another or
scroll in a different way, etc. Does the worship committee get supplanted by the
tech and creative teams I described earlier?
There is a need for consistency, not just in style or font size, but in things like
scripture reading, e.g. in some cases scripture readers were using a different
version of the Bible than the version being projected.
At North Bramalea, which doesn’t have hymn books and focuses on praise music
with a band, I had an interesting conversation about music and worship as
“performance”, since I didn’t feel that I was fully participating and I couldn’t hear
other people singing. Different music the next week and sitting in a different
location gave another perspective, further reinforcing how we respond so
individually to aspects of worship.
Where announcements were projected, there was no consistency in font sizes, and
some announcements were hard to read.
As a worshipper, I tried to discipline myself to not use the printed bulletin. But
when there was a projection glitch, it was a scramble to find the right place in the
bulletin or in the hymn book.
Images are in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes I couldn’t make the connection
between the image on the screen and what was happening in worship. Quite apart
from my personal reaction, I was intrigued by the concept of “visual literacy” that
Bonnie Greene describes in an article in Ordered Liberty. She says, “The verbal
and the visual are becoming companions in offering the God Story in a changed
culture.” We are going through a cultural adjustment that “will involve bringing
together verbal, visual and audio languages as we communicate the Good News in
a culture of verbal and visual integration.” There is lots to learn for any of us
using visual media in worship.
Possible future directions: With so many churches now moving into multi-media use, I
could see value in offering opportunities for congregations/Ministry Personnel to gather
in some fashion to learn from one another. There are clearly many resource people
Related reading: The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World by Tex Sample (1998);
Ordered Liberty, edited by William Kervin (2011).
I was struck by a comment from one retired minister at the end of one of the
“conversation” events. To paraphrase: “I was ordained 45 years ago, and we’ve been
talking about these issues like shortage of clergy and the future of the church the whole
time.” “Hmm”, I thought, “There’s some truth in this.” To the bookshelf I went. Ian
Manson’s article in The United Church of Canada: A History cites George Dorey, acting
secretary for the United Church’s Board of Home Missions, who reported to the 1946
General Council meeting that “the United Church had a critical shortage of ordained
ministers… The clergy the United Church did have were disportionately older, the result
of relatively low numbers of ordinands since the late 1920s”.
The Future Shape of Ministry was a study text while I was in theological college in the
1970s. Urban Holmes referenced the 1830-1860 period when the church was confronted
with “growing religious pluralism, collapsing churches and starving clergy”. He
mentions reports from the 1960s detailing the number of clergy who were leaving
ministry. He talks about the end of Christendom, and calls for new systems for training
ministers and helping at times of change and low morale.
In 1994 Marion Best, not yet the moderator of The United Church of Canada, gathered a
group of “friends” at Cedar Glen, with the result being the book, Will our Church
Disappear? The subtitle, “strategies for renewal of The United Church of Canada,”
attempted to balance the loss and fear of the title with hope for the future. Amongst
many topics, the friends talked about how the church was becoming decentralized, how
people were not wanting to serve the institution but were more grounded at the
congregational level, and about how we need to be listening to people who are not part of
So in this sense my retired colleague is correct. We have been talking about all these
issues for the last 45 years – and more. And yet, God has placed us in this time and
place, said former Moderator Peter Short at one of our recent Conference’s annual
meetings. In this time and place, our challenges may not be “new”, but they are different.
In a non-church book, The End of Membership as we Know it, author Sarah Sladek
identifies two major issues causing associations to re-think their activities. The two
issues are changing technology and changing demographics, including the fact that most
leaders and members in associations are in the near-retirement bracket. Just as
associations are being forced to change or die, so is the church.
Diana Butler Bass’ latest book, Christianity after Religion, continues the theme of people
not wanting to be part of an institution, though they are most open to engaging in things
of a spiritual nature. “During the past thirty years”, she wrote, “American faith has
undergone a profound and extensive reorientation away from externalized religion toward
internalized spiritual experience.” Though there are clear negative implications for the
institutional church, Butler Bass sees signs of hope as people make a conscious choice to
live as faithful practitioners of what they see in Jesus, and by acting justly in the world.
So yes, we’ve been talking about many of these issues for a long time, but the present day
is “our” opportunity to engage the issues and make plans for the future. During the
“conversations” with Ministry Personnel, I was impressed by the realism of those present
– yes, things are changing, numbers may be down, etc. – but I was more impressed by the
fact that I did not hear despair. (I’m well aware that those who may be in despair may
not wish to be part of conversations with other colleagues within the church.)
The conversations with Harry Brown, Glenn Smith, Keith Howard and Debra Bowman
provided insights on mentorship, planning, and having deliberate conversations about
ministry and programs that can be offered. The conversations with the Conference’s
personnel ministers helped to focus some of what we heard in the ministry
“conversations”. British Columbia Conference is well down the road of developing
leadership and supporting current leadership, e.g. mentoring, gatherings for those in the
first five years of ministry, travel programs, intensive reflection on ministry, etc.
What I think I heard was the need for Ministry Personnel to get together for the sake of
getting together, perhaps with times of study and reflection on ministry as it evolves in
our time. And there are other times when Ministry Personnel could gather for skills
development, e.g. using social media as tools of ministry, or learning from past successes
or mistakes in ministry.
Concurrent with all this, General Council has been discussing the roles of Conference and
Presbytery in the areas of pastoral relations and care for Ministry Personnel. The
outcomes from this summer’s General Council meeting may give some clues as how best
to address these issues within Toronto Conference and its Presbyteries.
Possible future directions: Immediately following the General Council meeting, I will
discuss support for Ministry Personnel with the personnel ministers. Depending on what
emerges, we’ll have a better sense of what role, if any, Conference will play in this area.
Related reading: The Future Shape of Ministry by Urban Holmes (1971); Will our
Church Disappear? by Marion Best (1994); The United Church of Canada: A History,
edited by Don Schweitzer (2012); The Blaikie Report, by Bill Blaikie (2011)*;
Christianity after Religion by Diana Butler Bass (2012); The End of Membership as we
Know it by Sarah Sladek (2011)
*I included this book in the leadership list because I think it speaks to any of us in
leadership positions. Bill Blaikie reflects on 29 years as a Member of Parliament. He
talks a lot about the United Church and the role of faith in politics. I found it to be quite
challenging for how we do public witness – whether we are ministers in congregations, at
Presbytery or Conference or General Council, or in Parliament. Some of you will
remember his plea at the Toronto Conference annual meeting several years ago when he
urged us to be active in expressing our opinions about current issues from our particular
The two Dummies books helped me to realize how little I know about social media, but
they gave me the encouragement to put my toe in the water. By the end of the sabbatical
I was using social media the way I swim – all in the shallow end – but I was more
concerned with having the experience. So, for example, I used Twitter to follow “major”
events such as Oscar night and the NDP leadership convention. It’s amazing how
creative and funny some people can be. I saw little bits of how the church is using
Twitter and Facebook to send out information about meetings or events, and I’ll be
interested to see how people respond to our Facebook and Twitter feeds at this year’s
I am more interested in how the church can use these technologies without at the same
time being elitist in regard to who has the technology. In Tweet if you (Love) Jesus,
Elizabeth Drescher says that “social media do more than enhance existing communities.
They also play an important role in extending spiritual relatedness beyond the church.”
She writes about “extending the Church’s radical welcome to the marginalized within the
Church and to believers and seekers who live outside of defined spiritual community.”
Shades of Butler Bass here.
Possible future directions: I will continue to have discussions with staff about how we
can use social media at the Conference and Presbytery levels to further the mission of the
Related reading: Facebook for Dummies; Twitter for Dummies; Tweet if you (Love)
Jesus by Elizabeth Drescher
Rejuvenation of body and soul
The four books mentioned in this section were all blessings to me. The book by
Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu was a gift from my congregation when I
joined Windermere United in March; the emphasis is on the fact that God made us for
goodness. One of the more thought-provoking passages: “We are fundamentally good…
Why else do we get so outraged by wrong?... Evil and wrong are aberrations. If wrong
was the norm, it wouldn’t be news. Our newscasts wouldn’t lead with the latest acts of
murder and mayhem, because they would be ordinary. But murder and mayhem are not
the norm. The norm is goodness.” Think of how much goodness we experience in our
lives, most of which will never appear on the news.
The Barbara Brown Taylor book is a reminder that we can find God in so many places in
very ordinary ways – waking up to where God already is, getting lost, encountering
others, feeling pain. As I read each chapter, I found myself meditating on the various
ways I find God, and I found that my prayer life at the end of the day was a cascade of
God-experiences. What a wonderful way to go to sleep!
Related spiritual reading: Fragments of Your Ancient Name by Joyce Rupp (2011); An
Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor (2009); Made for Goodness by Desmond
and Mpho Tutu (2011); The Promise of Paradox by Parker Palmer (2008 edition).
Personal reading: It was great to have the energy to do more personal reading ranging
from children’s literature like Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book to Shakespeare’s King
Lear to Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce: memories of a revolutionary daughter to
Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nehmat.
The four books mentioned, below, had been hanging around for a number of months.
The David Allen books about being organized were interesting, but perhaps the tips were
not all that new to me. However, because of reading them, I started to learn how to use
the “Tasks” feature in Microsoft Outlook. Old hat to many, but new to me, so that was
The Scott Belsky book had a couple of helpful ideas. “Ideally, meetings should lead to
ideas that are captured as Action Steps and then assigned to individuals together with
deadlines.” (p. 78). “At the end of a meeting, take a few moments to go around and
review the Action Steps each person has captured.” (p. 79) “For project management
meetings, value should be measured with Action Steps. For cultural change meetings,
value should be measured with a shared understanding. And for alignment and buy-in,
value should be measured with a new level of understanding and consensus.” (p. 80-81)
The Holland book continued my reading on church governance.
Possible future directions: 1) I’ve already spoken to the staff about a couple of learnings
from the Allen and Belsky books, and will follow up with the staff when I return. 2) I
will speak with the president and president-elect about implementing some of the
learnings from the book on church governance.
Related reading: Getting Things Done (2001) and Making it all Work (2008) by David
Allen (another David Allen!); Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky (2010); Building
Effective Boards for Religious Organizations by Thomas Holland et al (2000).
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